Spokane’s Episcopal Diocese installed its first female bishop during a ceremony on Saturday. In the majestic Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, some of the highest-ranking leaders of the American Episcopal Church joined Gretchen Rehberg for one of the most important days of her life.
It’s been a long journey for the Pullman native to this position where she now leads 36 churches in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. After high school Rehberg left the family farm, thinking some day she wanted to join the ministry. But she took a different direction. She went to college, got a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Minnesota and went to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania to teach.
“But that call to ministry never went away," Rehberg said. "And I kept feeling it and trying to figure out what to do about it. And what I realized is I needed to either respond or stop praying. And I wasn’t willing to stop praying.”
So she decided to become an Episcopal priest. She went to the seminary in New York City and was ordained in Pennsylvania. That’s where she held her first church position. In 2005, she felt another call, to come back home to be closer to family. She heard of an opening at the Episcopal church in Lewiston.
“Now I’m a child of the Palouse, so I didn’t think I’d like to live in the valley. I thought, Lewiston, I don’t know. But I fell in love with Lewiston and I served there for 11 years and it was glorious,” Rehberg said.
When Spokane Bishop James Waggoner announced he would retire, Rehberg decided to apply. In the Episcopal Church, that meant she had to win an election against three other candidates, which she did, last October.
Church patrons began arriving at the cathedral two hours before Rehberg’s ordination ceremony. Clergy members came from all over. They dressed in red and white robes. After a long procession, Rehberg sat in a front row pew, occasionally kneeling before a small group of clergy, led by Michael Curry, the church’s presiding bishop, the Episcopal Church’s version of a spiritual leader.
“One part of the ceremony I found really interesting," reporter Doug Nadvornick said. "You were kneeling in front of the five, I think they were all bishops. And then you stand up and all these people close in around you. It’s like a huddle. And you were kind of at the center of the huddle of about 12 people. What was it like to be right of the middle of that?”
“And actually I wasn’t standing up. I was kneeling. And that’s when they are laying hands on me and praying that the Holy Spirit fill me," Rehberg said. "It’s an incredibly powerful moment. And our presiding bishop said to the bishops before that, ‘now remember, we lean on Jesus. We don’t lean on Gretchen. Don’t push too hard. And I have to tell you, they were pushing pretty hard.”
Soon, the presiding bishop was asking the congregation whether they wanted Rehberg as their spiritual leader.
“And do you feel ready for this job?” Nadvornick asked.
“Oh you’re never ready. But you do the best you can anyway and I’m ready as I’m going to be,” Rehberg said.
Copyright 2017 Spokane Public Radio